Firefighters: One simple step could save your life during a fire

Smoke billows from the window of an Avon home during a live burn test with the Washington Township/Avon Fire Department. (Photo by John M. Buckman III)

HENDRICKS COUNTY, Ind. (WISH) — Each year more than 3,000 people are killed in residential fires in the United States. But there is one thing firefighters say you can do that could double, if not triple, the time you have to escape and survive a fire.

This piece of fire safety doesn’t cost you a thing. You don’t have to check the batteries and it’s already installed in your house.

It’s a door.  And closing it could be the difference between life and death, if a fire occurs.

In June of 2015, Tom and Pam Price survived a fire in their Muncie home for 38 minutes. That’s how long they were inside the home before rescue, three times longer than fire experts believe humans can survive a fire, but a closed door made the difference.

“The least you can do is keep your door closed,” John Shafer, Washington Township/Avon Fire Department Fire Training & Safety Division Chief, said.

Shafer is passionate about this message, so he’s set up a live burn test in a home that is set to be demolished for road construction in Avon.

The plan is to set a fire in a trash can in the living space directly between two bedrooms. The door to the master bedroom will be open. The door for what we’re calling the children’s bedroom will be closed. WISH-TV’s Daybreak reporter Nina Criscuolo will have a camera inside the closed-door-room and several other unmanned cameras will capture the fire in the other spaces.

“We’re actually going to be behind the cheapest kind of door that you can have and they were seeing anywhere between five to 10 minutes that it bought a person just with a hallow core door,” Shafer said.

Door or not, Criscuolo put on 85 pounds of gear, to take our cameras inside the burning home.

Less than two minutes after the fire is sparked, the smoke alarms began sounding in the home. Within three minutes the recliner is engulfed and smoke started to spread in the living room and into the master bedroom.

“Fires today with today’s furnishings grow about eight to 10 times faster than the furnishings of 40 years ago,” Shafer said.

The fire then moves to the rest of the furniture in the room.

From the children’s bedroom, where Criscuolo and Shafer are behind the door, the glow from the flames is apparent. Shafer rolled up a blanket from the bed to block smoke from coming under the door.

The closed space keeps temperatures down, and provides more than double the oxygen to breathe.

“If that door is blocking then my brain might be able to wake up and register, hey, my smoke detector is going off and I need to get out or I need to get a plan to get out,” Shafer said.

Once the fire has flashed over, firefighters go to work putting it out.

“The difference in the amount of damage that’s going to be done on the side, that has the open door is going to be drastically more than the side that’s got the closed door,” Karen Hendershot, Washington Township Fire Department’s director of public education, said.

Once the home is cleared of dangerous carbon monoxide levels, the damage was surveyed.

The lamp shade in the open room was black and charred, just wires left. In the kids’ room, a lamp shade is almost untouched. The same goes for the blankets and the walls in that room, they are barely smoke damaged.

For firefighters, it’s not about the property a door protects, but rather the person they can reach with that extra five to 10 minutes it provides.

“It’s huge. Five to 10 minutes, we can get the line in, we can get a ladder to the window to rescue your child that’s behind that closed door. We can do a lot within five to 10 minutes,” Shafer said.

“We talk about 911. We talk about stop drop and roll. We talk about crawling low underneath the smoke, but closing the door first can potentially eliminate some of those things that you have to do,” Hendershot said.

About half of home fire deaths happen between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. when many people are sleeping, so it’s really important to keep your door closed when sleeping, but it’s a good practice any time of day. You should also remember to close doors behind you as you escape a fire.

“The difference between life and death can simply be if the door was closed,” Shafer said.

The close-the-door message is not formally taught in fire safety right now. Shafer and Hendershot would like to see this taught along with safe sleeping practices for newborns right in the hospital, that way kids learn to sleep with the door closed from the very beginning of life.

For more information on some tips that could potentially save your life, click here.

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